I love the virtual world. I can connect with many people at once and I can connect with a variety of people around the world. In a few minutes I can have updates on all my friends and family, and possibly make new friends growing my network of connection and virtual love.
I’m inspired by seeing people’s trips, progress in fitness regimes, and I formulate empathy of hearing people’s struggles and feel deep connection in knowing that there are hundreds of others around the world that feel the same way I do during those times. All this is happening without me ever looking at anyone in the eyes, giving a kind touch with my hand on my friend’s shoulder, or saying any words out of my mouth.
I’m connecting and it’s wonderful. Yet, when I leave the virtual world sometimes, I feel quite the opposite. I feel disconnected and sometimes it’s a feeling of crash and burn in my brain after a plugin. So, as much as I love and appreciate the virtual world, I also love to have my life go unplugged for large chunks of time. I crave human eye contact, touch, and voice. I deeply desire conversations unplugged – for my heart and my brain.
We exhibit shadow and light in our human nature, and the things we create also exhibit those qualities. I’m not assigning value of light = good and shadow = bad, but I’m referring to a state of consciousness we exhibit at various times – shadow and light. We require both to evolve our awareness.
The shadow side of virtual reality is this feeling of disconnection and if we adopt compulsive behavior with it, a feeling of crash and burn. This crash and burn feeling sometimes gives rise and impulse to virtually connect even more to the medium that is sparking the disconnection. Why is that?
From a neuroscience perspective, when we plug in compulsively seeking connection we are feeding our brains junk food. Our brains only have so much energy to process a finite number of decisions in our waking hours and when our brains run out of fuel, our decisions and the things we do based on those decisions are the lowest grade quality.
Let’s make some sense of this. Our brains love to organize information and make categories. Look around, there’s organization everywhere with categories for everything along with sub-categories. Just think about how your kitchen is organized. Our brains love organization. We have evolved in life my creating more complex ways to organize and process information.
So why do we keep connecting to something that is making us feel so disconnected? It’s not the object that’s making us feel disconnected, it’s our relationship with the object. We have an internal reward system in our brain fueled by the neurotransmitter dopamine. When we accomplish something – a post, an e-mail, a pose, a project, an activity, a hard day’s work, etc., we feel great and we have dopamine to thank for it.
Author Daniel Levitin of The Organized Mind states, “the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that it’s attention can easily be hijacked by something new…” and he goes on to say, “the very brain region we rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check out e-mail, send a SMS, and each of these tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids, all to the detriment of our staying on task.” Levitin calls this kind of connection fuel the “ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.”
When we plug in too much, we are not reaping big constructive neurologically true and healthy brain rewards that come from focus and sustained effort (that yoga/mindfulness/prayer helps us with), we’re getting little shots of dopamine that aren’t feeding our brain in sustained ways. It’s like an empty calorie. We eat it, but get no real energy, and then we try to carry forth through our day and crash and burn. And all those to-dos on our list keep getting longer.
When we feel an urge to connect virtually, we go into the world of social media and we connect to something novel. This makes us feel more socially connected thanks to the dopamine shots. But remember, this is an empty calorie shot that will cause us to crash and burn. Levitin says “Make no mistake: Email, Facebook, and Twitter checking constitute a neural addiction.”
So are our feelings of connection in the virtual world inauthentic? Not exactly. If we are being compulsive about plugging in, then yes. We are feeding our brains junk food and will feel connected briefly with a burning desire to want more, and more, and more!
Our prefrontal cortex (the front part of our brain just above our forehead) is our executive portion of our brain. This is where our brain organizes, schedules, and stays on task, but it’s also the same part of the brain that gets hijacked by novelty! So we must put system in place to keep our brain junk food encounters low. We must set times a day or a week to check e-mail or social media and not do so multiple times a day.
When we are connecting virtually, which is an amazing and very useful piece of technology in our lives, we are getting little shots of dopamine that make us feel like we’re accomplishing something and connecting, but we aren’t really accomplishing or connecting much at all. We are rewiring our brains in a really unhealthy way.
As we plug into the virtual world, we probably have a to-do list waiting for some human contact attention. What about that project you’ve wanted to start working on? And that book you keep saying you want to read or write? So many of us say we have no time to connect in person and to some extent that’s probably true. We resort to SMS, e-mails, and SM. Add the time we spend in the virtual world every day and multiply that over a week and we may find we do in fact have more time for human face-to-face interactions that we thought.
Let’s take some internal inventory, unplug, and start having conversations with ourselves and the important people in our lives. If you and your family wired in multiple times a day, make a conscious effort to unplug and set guidelines on when you and your family will plug in.
I personally have guidelines with my son’s access to electronics. We all need junk brain food sometimes, and that’s ok, but the junk food must be limited our just like when we feed our bodies junk food and we can face a host of healthy problems, our brains will start to rewire in ways that our counterproductive to the way we must operate our lives. We create innovation and get through our day and our projects with focused attention. I guide my son to reap rewards from finishing a book, a project, or practicing his homework and sports diligently. I’m also revamping my own guidelines of when to plug in.
I’m not really suggesting a fast from the virtual world, and then for us to go back and compulsively build up our brains on junk dopamine, but I’m suggesting that plugging into the virtual world should be structured everyday of our lives until it just becomes a way of life. Once you have structures in place, notice when you become disconnected from those structures, and notice what is driving that disconnection from structure and fueling the compulsive behavior. When we are aware, we can turn it around and get back to a healthy functioning of our brains and our life.
Conversations unplugged is about those focused in the moment conversations with ourselves. It’s about focusing on what really matters in life and getting the important things done. It’s about reconnecting person to person, eye to eye, voice to voice, and human touch to human touch with a virtual side of banana split, not as the main course. Treat yourself and your brain to sustained fuel energy most of the time and indulge in brain junk food just some of the time. Happy unplugging!
Om Shanti Om ~ Athea